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February 27, 2008

Playing telephone

Butterflies I got one of those chain e-mails the other day. Maybe you've seen this one too:

Entries for an art contest at the Hirshorn Modern Art Gallery in DC

The rule was that the artist could use only one sheet of paper.

There followed a slew of images like the one at right, most of them quite beautiful, funny, and/or clever. It's become a habit of mine, though, never to take a chain e-mail at face value, so I turned to my old friend Google for assistance. Here's the real story, courtesy of MetaFilter:

The images were pretty cool; I'€™m not the only one who thought so. Just one thing, it turns out there was no contest and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has no connection that I could find with the artist, Peter [Callesen]. Still, however you find it, the work is well worth a look.

It was one of the comments at the site, though, that really caught my attention:

What is the deal with people just making stuff up and emailing it to their friends? I mean, I understand why people forward stuff, but why the lies? What motivates people to invent these totally banal untruths?

Good question. Why do people do this? Who was the person who, instead of just sending an e-mail around saying "Look at the cool artwork!" thought, "I think I'll make up a story about these artworks and the Hirshhorn Museum"? The "Liz-Claiborne-is-a-Satanist" and the "Pepsi-left-out-'under-God'" and the "Janet-Reno-thinks-Christianity-is-a-cult" hoaxes were bad, but at least you can see some reason why people would make up and spread such rumors. Not a good or justifying reason, but still a reason. What possible reason can there be to make up a story about an art contest and a museum and to leave an artist's name off his work?

Any suggestions?

(Image © Peter Callesen)

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Inaccurate forwards and chainletters are a huge pet peeve of mine. I've found that www.snopes.com is an excellent website for investigating forward emails. I work at a company that has close to a hundred office personnel. The worst is when someone forwards chainletter to "ALL" so they can get the promised good luck. What happens is there is always 5 to 10 people that then feel inclined to do the same thing. I love checking my email and finding 10 of the same forwards sitting in my inbox.

I'm guessing that half of the bad forwards we get are some young person getting a kick out of just being mishevious. About the same idea as prank phone calls.

Michael Scott (from The Office)

"I'm famous for my forwards. I'm the King of Forwards."


I agree with JackM above, but we should recognize that the scope of the problem/challenge here is much greater in the wild, wild internet world compared to prank phone calls.

This is why I like internet communities like ThePoint.org. I can peruse and review, at my descretion, a wide variety of submitted topics from the culture at large, knowing (this is key!) that the discussion and review is generally grounded biblically. ThePoint is not perfect in this regard, but it is far better than participating and adding to the chaos of the wild, untamed portions of the internet.

In the meantime, I'm still looking for better ways to gently and kindly respond to folks who forward silly or questionable chain emails without totally ignoring them or offending them.


I am very cautious about forwarding items. I also forwarded the "Hirshorn art contest" photos, but to a select few. I liken forwarding these items to making cold-call sales. They are not invited and can be aggravating to people. Perhaps we should mass forward a snopes.com email (for guaranteed good luck, of course)!

Steve (SBK)

I think Ignorance plays a key role.
Mainly, it boils down to perpetrators (whether they are malicious or pranksters) hoping the average person will ask this question: "Is this for real?" followed by "I don't know, so what's the harm?" Like the computer user who thinks they'll get money (on a pyramid scale) for forwarding an email, that's tracked by Microsoft for some testing purposes ... pfff. Or the good luck/karma that will flow your way if you do what the email says RIGHT NOW.
I'd think some are motivated by 'fame': "I started this email chain". Some likely just want to see others gullibility. And it works because... computers are magic.

"The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse... For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead." (C.S. Lewis from "The Abolition of Man")


The advantage to playing telephone was that it usually only took one round before everyone got thoroughly bored with the game and quit. Email forwards, on the other hand, just keep getting forwarded even years after the original version made the rounds.

For a while, I would research these on Snopes and reply with a kind word to check out the true story. I stopped doing that when it became obvious that the same people persisted in forwarding these types of emails without regard to the valuable and free education I was trying to provide them. Now I might read them just for the humor they provide or delete them depending on the available time I have and my mood.

My favorites now are the ones that start out "I checked this out on Snopes and it's ABSOLUTELY TRUE!!!!"

Gina Dalfonzo

TimS, you've described my own experience exactly. And it just kills me that they now start out the way you describe. It almost makes it seem as if what was once done in ignorance now has a deliberately malicious or at least mischievous streak, i.e., "I know you're going to wonder if this is true, so I'm going to lie to you upfront about it to keep you from trying to find out!"


Hackers, like the raptors at the start of the first "Jurassic Park", are always testing the fences, probing methodically for weaknesses. Imagine the difference between getting an unexpected package from someone you don't know, when there's been a rash of letterbombing, and getting an unexpected package from someone you DO know...

Rolley Haggard

I thought it was the "made you look" impulse at work. In the '50's it was pretty tame. Welcome to the 21st Century.


I confess that I may have been partially responsible for the "I checked this out..." opening. For a long time I would check Snopes or some other myth-buster site before FWDing anything I found useful, inspiring, etc. I would then open with the info I had personally acquired, to assure my own readers that I was looking out for them. No doubt some pranksters picked up from me and/or others that that would be a good way to bypass the cautious.

My biggest beef is the folks who FWD FWDed FWDs to the degree that 3/4ths of the email is other people's e-addys. Then they probably wonder how we all get on so many spammers' lsist!

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